It is often said that child birth is a risky, painful, messy, but joyous occasion that ushers in a new life. When the conditions are not ideal or the conception has complications, the carrier of the child titters on the edge of the precipice between death and life.
Our forebears believe that a new life — no matter its eventual outcome on this earth — is a gift from God. A thug, preacher, an engineer, commercial sex worker, liar, lawyer, musician, dancer, doctor, criminal, physicist or neurosurgeon, are professions, habits and vocations borne out of choice, hard work and focus.
The removal of dictatorship, howsoever transacted, often carries with it the sense of new birth. I witnessed it in Iraq with the fall of Saddam Hussein, in Libya with the fall of Muammar Gaddafi and in Kenya, with the end of the Daniel Arap Moi-Kanu era. The eventual outcomes of these “new births” have been quite different in the long term, some, in fact, more tragic than others.
When a nation is re-born, it is imbued with great expectations, some too weighty to bear. The choices a people, its leadership and institutions make, determine the outcome of such national re-birth or is it still-birth?
The pious among us seek to inscribe a God agenda in each change or shift in the affairs of man. They seek a prophecy, prediction or scriptural parallel. Modern technology has eliminated the anxiety of speculation regarding a child’s gender and state of health. We get to know ahead of time the gender and even state of health of the unborn child. Most importantly, health experts are able to advise what the mother should not eat, do or subject herself to during the pregnancy.This period before — and soon after-birth is deemed highly-sensitive, as it does determine the course and quality of life and well-being of a baby.
Parents of new-born babies are advised that their baby is prone to infections by reason of age and under-development of their immune system. Experts advise too that young ones must be nurtured and raised in love and absolute care. How I wish a nation’s direction of travel during a transition and succession could be tracked and predicted like that of a new born child.
Sadly, there is no new technology that allows us to understand the eventual outcome of a national re-birth, reform or shift.
We have to patiently, tenaciously and unrelentingly work through it. We cannot afford the luxury of waiting upon chance or fate to determine how the ideological, power, ethical and intellectual vacuum in our nation is filled. When a new leader ascends to power, whether by election or selection, we all become experts in hyper-speculation, regarding our common futures under his or her rule. After President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s ascendance, suddenly the whole nation has ideas on how he should do his job. Each Zimbabwean has become an expert in presidential affairs. What profligate brilliance. What presumptive and assertive arrogance or expectation!
All these brilliant ideas remain uncoordinated cacophony at best and at worst, regurgitated paragraphs from books read without critical reflection or the discipline that comes with applying knowledge. A true and transformative national re-birth, of necessity, requires an inclusive and frank national dialogue.
In order to engage and understand the new leadership, all we have — at most — are anecdotes and speeches. These — in most instances — are written by overzealous or bookish advisers. His supporters create legend about his history in leadership. Speech writers and advisers can wordsmith high-sounding ideas into the leader’s speech. If you dared enquire deeper, you will realise that these ideas may not relate at all to the leader’s convictions and aspirations. Presidential advisors are always consumed in a beauty contest to create or recreate the President in their own image.
As citizens, we suffer from emotional, moral and intellectual deprivation.
We are deprived of a deeper understanding of the leader’s personal life philosophy, ideology and personal ambitions. We are presented with a soulless caricature, punctuated by right-sounding speeches ably written by third parties. Inescapably, the birth of a new leader becomes the death of his real personality and character. The handlers tell him where to go and what would be inadvisable to say. Some, like United States President Donald Trump and former president Robert Mugabe often career off topic and the prepared text. Once a leader appears on the stage of power, he or she has to assume the rehearsed part of a main actor.
We make up fables, legends and begin to believe our own propaganda. We develop an art of judging new leadership that expects them to fit into neat buckets and pockets. In this formulaic approach, we are emboldened by our respective prejudices and/or euphoria. Our expertise is imbued with ethnic, regional, class, gender and generational prejudice. Each one of us — no matter how distant or unfamiliar we might be in real life with the new leader — we become studied experts in who he or she is and what he or she will and can or cannot do. We somehow lay claim to knowing the leader’s family, social associates, business interests, sexual indulgences and excesses. The truth is, we do not know anything and each one of us hopes that our fears, prejudices, fantasies and hopes are truth.
Ignorance, fear, hope and prejudice share a common habitat called fantasia. Fantasia substitutes reason and hard-nosed analysis. We subscribe to near-religious sentimentalism. The most common regarding Mnangagwa have been “give him a chance he is just settling in” or “he has been part of the rot, plunder and brutality for 37 years, how can a hyena can change its diet overnight?”.
These extreme positions are made all the more easy in a place like Zimbabwe, where the British are showing unusual enthusiasm for the new leadership despite the manner in which it came to power. Well, there was a coup, but Mugabe and the High Court agreed that it was not a coup. But does it matter really what they agreed? It was what it was, a coup. The most immediate output of the coup was an army of turncoats. One night they were with former first lady Grace Mugabe and egging her on and the next morning they were denouncing her and Mugabe as the reason of all malaise tormenting the nation. One thing is certain about the pervading euphoric mood in Zimbabwe and that is, it will soon dissipate.
The question is: why is there such scepticism and cynicism during the midday of our most hopeful moment in 37 years? Are we, as Zimbabweans, addicted to fear, doubt and oppression, such that we cannot embrace what the British are touting as “positive change” for the better? Doubt and fear are nourished by the realisation that those that took the military action, supposedly to stabilise the country, have installed themselves in government as the highest ranking executives.
Even as the new leadership touts “zero tolerance for corruption” as its new ethos, certain renowned “high priests” of grand corruption have made it into the new anti-corruption executive. Maybe it is a case of “use a thief to catch a thief”. To the officious bystander, all this looks like a crude continuation of the Mugabe era — “impunity for our friends and rule by law for our opponents”.
The re-birth of a nation is messy, but joyous. We have an unusually high number of men with a military or intelligence background in new cabinet (70%). We cannot make excuses for this in light of the paucity of young people and women in the same cabinet. Besides, we made enough excuses for Mugabe over 37 years.
Gender equality and youth leadership and participation are non-negotiables. As we criticise, let us at least acknowledge the joy of not hearing Grace hurl insults that are unprintable or not hearing sycophantic youth leaders serenade Grace with leadership abilities she could not possibly ever have. Let us celebrate the joy of not being harassed by rent-seeking police officers at meaningless roadblocks. This euphoria will be short-lived. True, too, that no change can be obtained from a recycled Zanu PF leadership. Absolutely true, that militarisation of civic institutions is often a prelude to brazen state capture. Also, top-down change produces inertia and apathy in the long run. It is correct that an election alone will not address the deep mistrust and disconnection between the governed and the governors.
Seeing through the mist
Zimbabwe’s greatest resources are its people (inside and outside the country). The possibility of a new politics and even some economic stability looms large. The sudden interests of China, Russia and Britain to come to our rescue, must cause us to ask the following critical questions: What is their interest? How much of our future are we mortgaging? The bigger question is: Do Zimbabweans deserve better? Do we deserve much more than courteous army officers at roadblocks? Do Zimbabwean women, workers, hawkers, vendors, cross-border traders, unemployed youths, refugees, persons living with disabilities, among others, deserve more? Do Zimbabwean women deserve better?
Hope is a fundamental ingredient of all life. It is this willingness to constantly look forward to a better tomorrow. As my brother Shaka Ssali would urge, “keep hope alive”. General Adams in writing about military strategy warns though that “hope is not a strategy”. As Zimbabweans we have no choice but to hope. But most importantly, we must strategise to ensure that we never again hand over the destiny of our nation and our futures to a “few strongmen”. Strong persons without strong institutions and strong accountability mechanisms become sordid autocrats. Hope that does not leverage on the substance of ideation, institution building, justice and integrity assurances becomes mere presumption and foolishness. Hope is not a strategy, but without it, no strategy will be envisioned or energised. Hope can lead to fantasy and to delusion, but it can keep the soul of a nation alive. It is better than the toxin of undiluted scepticism and despair.
Politicians are incapable of becoming good and trustworthy in and of themselves. We have to organise and demand this of them. Inclusion of young people and women will not be a gift from above. We have to struggle for this too. Growth in Gross Domestic Product, building of infrastructure and regular debt servicing will not rebuild the essence of our humanity and social cohesion destroyed by years of politics of brutality and unpleasantness. My own hope is not in those that came to power through a coup, but in the people of Zimbabwe, who have re-asserted their right to say “enough is enough”.
Zimbabwe has a wounded leadership and a wounded citizenry. Healing both will take much more than commuter trains, good roads and faster internet. The tasks of rebuilding national cohesion, national and local economies, as well as citizenship, require a much freer society . It is often said that Zimbabwe — after 37 years of dictatorship — needs another benevolent dictator who understands the needs of the market and is able to relate well with the international community and global finance capital. Get real, 50 years of dictatorship is unlikely to produce sustainable and inclusive development.
What Zimbabwe requires are four strong cultures within leadership and governance, namely:
Performance culture and results-based leadership and governance;
Accountability culture anchored on zero tolerance to corruption;
Service culture, ensuring that the masses receive quality public services;
Innovation culture, where the state’s ability to plan, execute and innovate is not constrained by rigidities in bureaucracy. This of necessity implies a very strong research and development function in government.
In such a government, knowledge and evidence, not war veterancy or party loyalty, become key drivers of policy. None of these cultures are established yet and as such, we need to inch deliberately towards establishing a capable democratic developmental state in Zimbabwe.
The country deserves a democratic revolution and not a benevolent dictatorship. We have both the human resource, infrastructure, natural resource and institutional basis for a more democratic transition. Benevolent dictatorship will breed a culture of coups and counter-coups. We certainly do not wish that on ourselves.
You and me
New birth requires a new and future-focussed politics. To be future-focused means deliberately dying to self, killing old habits and old ways. To be a new nation requires that we function not only on the memory of the liberation struggle, but on the flawless imagination of what young people can contribute to our nation as leaders, technocrats, advisors, entrepreneurs and knowledge generators. Without a healthy generational mix , the new nation becomes stillborn, an unproductive painful mess. Let not posterity ask of us: Did you really experience a new birth? The mess of the coup (or military action) was a public outbreak of an inward condition of our polity that has been a mess for a while. The cynical amongst us opined: “the trees maybe different, but the monkeys are the same”.
We cannot in our realism blame a hope-starved nation for bringing on a morsel of hope or for seeing mirages of democratic transformation on every electoral horizon. A heathy dose of both hope and scepticism is important to create a counter-intuitive symbiosis. Scepticism helps us face the reality of the current and hope helps us to seek to change it and create a different reality.
The military action, Mugabe’s dithering, opposition naivety and public euphoria were messy, it could only be messy .We can now ask candidly, was it a birth or an excision of a large belly tumour that could have been mistaken for a pregnancy? If it was a birth, we seem to be struggling with the fact that it is the product of an incestuous relationship between the mother and the doctor who delivered it by Caesarean section. The more scientific among us argue that genetic engineering has not reached the levels of cloning that produce a new baby as old as its parents. If there was a new birth, under what circumstances was our re-born nation conceived? How might we guarantee its long-term ethical, democratic, economic and political well-being? How does it bring on-board 96% of the non-war veteran and non-soldier population? I pray that we avert this pain by acting now!
Kagoro is a lawyer and political commentator.